Well, this is the story of Amrapali! An infant Amrapali was found under a mango tree and hence the name (Amra in Sanskrit means mango). Thanks to the twists and turns of fate, Amrapali, a simple girl, was made the “Nagarvadhu” (bride of the whole city) of Vaishali, and then went on to become the “Janapada Kalyani” (most talented woman of the realm), and at the end became a nun and one of the most prominent women disciples of Buddha himself. While she lived in opulence, she became sick and tired of being pursued for her enchanting beauty, and realised that worldly desires bring only sorrow. She renounced all desires at the end.
I had heard of Amrapali, but it was only after seeing her figurine on the eastern gate of Sanchi (see photo), that I began my research on her. This figurine of Amrapali challenges our current social beliefs, and appears to be nude. Not so soon! If you notice closely, she is shown wearing a body hugging garment made of satin. Even I didn’t believe it, till my guide took me to the back side of the figurine and pointed out the folds in the garment, which were more prominent at the back. Such were the master sculptors. No wonder, Sanchi proudly bears the tag of a “World Heritage Site” for its exquisitely carved gates on all four sides.
Wait! How am I convinced that she is Amrapali, apart from my guide telling me so? Internet tells us that she is Shalabhanjika, a Yakshi. But no! If she was indeed Shalabhanjika, as the name suggests she would be seen with a shal tree and not with a mango tree, as is in this case. Mango means Amra, and hence Amrapali. Simple!
Coming back to the story of Amrapali before she became a nun, as it turns out, Bimbisara, the then Emperor of Magadh (present day Bihar) and later his son Ajaatshatru (who went on to arrest his father and capture the throne of Magadh for himself), were among many suitors of Amrapali. Both Bimbisara and Ajaatshatru were unquestionably amongst the most powerful men of India of that time. Not undermining the trauma she must have gone through earlier as the bride of Vaishali, in due course Amrapali had garnered enough audacity, power and voice to say no to even Emperors. Talk of women empowerment!
In course of my research, I found out that the timeline was 6th-5th century BC. I learned, as hard as it is to believe, Vajji Mahajanapada, of which Vaishali was the capital, was a democratic republic of sorts. That was more than 2,500 years ago. Point to be noted here is, Alexander the Great and other Greeks would arrive in India only two centuries later. So, a democratic republic of sorts not only existed, but also flourished in India, even before the Greeks arrived. However, Greece is considered as the origin of democracy. Interesting, isn’t it?
Will you agree, it is enough of history lessons for one post? I bet you will! And I promise to cover Sanchi in detail, in one of my later posts.
Credits: Hindi “Bonds”, who also happen to be my good friends, helped me in proof reading the Hindi poem “Vaishali ki Amrapali”. Not formally trained in Hindi, I had committed many mistakes in the first draft and they helped me fix them – Tulika Poddar, Sonam Chamaria, Aradhana Singh and Pallavi Jain.
In frame: Eastern gate, Stupa no. 1, Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh, India
Note: Please get in touch if you have difficulty in reading Hindi, and would prefer an English translation of the poem instead.
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© Amrit Panigrahy. All rights reserved.